Monday, September 27, 2010

Surnames and Slavery

J.L. Bell has an excellent post up today tackling the important question of how historians should use names when writing about enslaved New Englanders. If we presume to refer to slaves by their owners' surnames, we risk legitimizing the patriarchal fiction of a unified household in which slaves were the "children" of their masters. We also elide the common  practice of calling slaves by a single name as a marker of their low status.

This has been something that I have struggled with in writing about gravestones. Even when the gravestone does offer a surname, I am hesitant to use it because it is often unclear whether the stone was erected by the deceased's family or by a slaveowner.

Pegge [Scott-Robinson], NCBG, Newport, RI, 1757
One particularly thorny case is when an enslaved child's gravestone names both parents by both first and last names (often different last names owing to restrictions on marriage/separation). The few records I have indicate that these stones were often paid for by the parents, so these are likely to be the names they claimed for themselves.

By what name should I call the child in my own writing? Take the case of Pegge, a little girl who died in Newport, RI in 1757. If Pegge is the daughter of Pompe Scott and Vilot Robinson, should I call her Pegge Scott? Probably not, because that erases the reality of enslaved families' forced estrangement. Pegge Robinson? Maybe — she probably lived with her mother at the time of her death — but that name ignores her father, implying that her mother's owner was, in some way, her "father." Should I use a hyphen and call her Pegge Scott-Robinson or Pegge Robinson-Scott? That is a ridiculous anachronism that would make very little sense within the accepted naming patterns of 18th-century New England.

Peg, 1740, Newport Common Burying Ground, Newport, RI
I suppose the safest choice is just to call her Pegge, since that is what her gravestone calls her. Still, that feels wrong, too. A six-year-old child without a surname seems tragic to me — it orphans her. Usually, I feel a fierce urge to call the child only by the single name given on the gravestone. In the case of Peg, another 6-year-old who died in Newport in 1740, who is called "Peg a Negro Servt to Henry Bull," using only her first name (not presuming to add "Bull") acknowledges the violence implicit in an artifact that preserves her owner's name, but not her mother's or father's. It feels wrong to do the same for Pegge when I do know her parents' names — I don't want to erase them from her identity in the same way that Peg's parents have been removed from our record of her.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

However, was it not common among unenslaved people to use the mother's maiden name as a first or middle name? I think, then, that calling the child Pegge Scott Robinson would recognise who she truly was.